Students, faculty, and community members often approach me seeking advice on their quest to understand interracial encounters. For example, white women and white men tend to ask me to explain misunderstandings they have encountered with people of color. “Melissa, my colleague at work who is Mexican American, told me about a racist incident she experienced with another co-worker. I tried to explain that her encounter was probably just about Stan being rude, which he is to everyone, rather than racism. But she did not seem to get what I was saying. So how do I effectively explain in a way that Melissa understands me?”
When sharing this scenario with me, the white woman we will call Penny, engaged in unconscious privileged group behavior that results in further marginalization and microaggressions against her colleague Melissa. To be clear, Penny sees herself as a good person and as an ally to people of color. Let’s break down this response and analyze how her expectations missed the ally mark and prevented her from being a supportive colleague.
Ally Mistake 1: Centering the Privileged Perspective
First, Penny focused on her own perspective and emotions. As a white woman, she cannot directly experience systemic racism because her racial group has the most collective power and control within systems and institutions. This lack of experience and the discomfort that results from hearing Melissa’s story, and therefore Melissa’s pain, (unconsciously) motivates Penny to explain away the racism. Within, social psychology, we call this motivated reasoning. Rather than analyze the instance of workplace racism, she looks for various ways to attribute the encounter to some other source, such as Stan being an equal opportunity rude co-worker. White fragility can be a strong motivator in these moments. As allies, we must consciously and consistently work to resist white fragility that leads to centering our own needs.
Ally Mistake 2: Invalidating the Marginalized Experience
Second, Penny invalidated a woman of color’s experience. In graduate school, a close friend and classmate of mine, an African American woman, came to my office and shared that one of our faculty members had confused her with another African American student. The white faculty member called my friend by the wrong name. Even though I am white, my friend felt I would understand because she knew I studied white privilege and anti-racist activism. In that moment, I asked her if she thought maybe this white male faculty member usually confused all of the students. In other words, I implied maybe his naming mix up was not about race. Within a short moment, I corrected my own dismissive statement, and we got back on track processing the microaggression she experienced. Although this happened about 18 years ago, I still think about that day as a time when I invalidated her lived experience of hurt with my own white lens interpretation. My dismissal was likely due to my own discomfort in that moment (see above mistake about centering the privileged).
Ally Mistake 3: Searching for Miss-Education
Third, Penny sought my help in “fixing” the supposed miscommunication between herself and the beleaguered woman of color with the goal of having Melissa understand her “it’s not racism” logic. Though I appreciated her efforts to seek guidance from White anti-racism scholars to better educate herself, she began with the wrong assumptions and the wrong question. Seeking education on how to get Melissa to listen to her explain away racism misses the mark. Hence the label “Miss-Education.” As a white woman, Penny does need education. She needs advice on how to listen deeply, sit with her own discomfort, and avoid placing her own needs at the center of the conversation when a person of color bravely shares her upsetting encounter with racism. The appropriate question would be, “How do I learn to attend to Melissa’s needs, not expect her to educate me, and make her feel seen and heard in those moments?”
My first instinct for this section is to say, “Don’t be a Penny!” However, this requires a bit more nuance. Ally work is never complete. Even the most dedicated to analyzing privilege and working to dismantle oppression can fail to respond as effective allies in these moments. If you truly aim to behave as an ally to Melissa, take a deep breath, recognize your own internal emotional response, put your own needs aside to process later (not with a person of color), LISTEN, ask her what SHE needs from you in that moment, validate her feelings, believe her. Think about a time when you were not heard and what you wish you had received. Then do that.
Please note this post focuses on white allies, but applies across various forms of oppression and privilege. Stayed tuned for future “How NOT to be an Ally” posts covering all too common ally mistakes as well as behaviors associated with “intersectional ally” behavior.